Marguerite Animbwe Fuo fled her village of Manzakala in north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) after Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) fighters beat her two children to death.
"I could not go back to my village because I saw my two children being killed with machetes and sticks," she said. "Everything was destroyed or looted."
Animbwe, 49, was among the internally displaced persons (IDPs) at Doruma in Orientale Province when John Holmes, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, visited.
Several IDPs said groups of LRA fighters attacked villages in Dungu where they killed people using sticks, machetes or similar weapons, looted and burnt villages, and abducted youngsters.
"Sporadic attacks are still taking place in remote villages and people are still being killed," said a priest from Doruma Saint Vincent parish, Anselme Bin-Masudi.
Massacres around Doruma over Christmas triggered a wave of displacement from surrounding villages, tripling the population of this small border town 7km from Sudan to 18,000.
Attacks in the area, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), left 364 people dead and many more unaccounted for. Since Christmas, LRA-related deaths in Orientale are believed to have exceeded 850.
"The level of casual brutality, the callous disregard for life and the treatment of women and children in particular are truly horrifying," said Holmes. "The villagers have suffered dreadfully at the hands of the LRA."
Relative calm has, however, returned to Dungu. Villagers are returning, while humanitarian agencies have delivered some aid to those affected.
However, people still receiving treatment in health centres were suffering physical and psychological trauma, Augustin Tungasa, a nurse at Doruma, said.
In meetings with commanders of the Forces Armées du République Démocratique de Congo (FARDC) and the Ugandan People’s Defense Forces (UPDF), who are undertaking a joint military operation against the LRA with Southern Sudan, Holmes called on parties to the conflict to spare civilians.
Photo: Peter Martell/IRIN
|DRC refugees who fled LRA attacks waiting to register with the UN Refugee Agency in Southern Sudan (file photo)|
"For those within the LRA who feel sickened by the raping, injury and murder of civilians, I urge you to lay down your arms," he said. "These innocent people have nothing to do with you and have done nothing to hurt you. The burden of the crimes of the LRA should not grow heavier."
The rebels, who have had a presence around Duru (95km north of Dungu town) in Haut Uélé District since 2005, between December 2007 and August 2008 attacked populations in DRC, Central African Republic and Southern Sudan.
The attacks, according to OCHA, have led to killings, pillaging, rapes, and abductions of adults and children. The rebel attacks, now mostly carried out by small groups, have intensified since the military operation.
Analysts, including Julia Spiegel from the Washington-based Enough Project, have argued that the intervention, launched on 14 December, has exacerbated civilian hardship.
The Ugandan government argues that the offensive has destroyed rebel bases and scattered the fighters. "We have achieved one objective, that is destroying LRA camps," UPDF spokesman in Dungu, Captain Deo Akiki, told IRIN.
In one of the latest rebel attacks, at least six people were killed and another 21 kidnapped on 7 February in Aba town, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
"The LRA rebels also plundered the local Protestant parish and hospital," UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told reporters in Geneva. "This attack sent thousands of Congolese fleeing to Southern Sudan."
An estimated 5,000 DRC refugees from Alba fled to Lasu town, some 50km from the DRC border, after the attack.
"They said thousands more are on the way," Redmond said. "The refugees told UNHCR staff in Lasu on Sunday that 90 percent of Aba's 100,000 population had fled the town and many more could be expected to arrive in Southern Sudan in the next few days."
UN agencies estimate that 150,000 people have been displaced by fighting in Orientale Province since September. An estimated 900 Congolese have also been killed over the past five months.
"The dreadful atrocities against the population by the LRA place a huge responsibility on all concerned - government, international partners and allies alike - to do much more to protect civilians during the joint operations and in their aftermath," Holmes said after meeting DRC President Joseph Kabila in Kinshasa.